Chinese Funeral Culture and Grief Etiquettes — History, Tradition, and Customs
What Is National Grief Etiquette In Chinese Funeral Culture?
No later than the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), national grief etiquettes were held to mourn large-scale tragedies, including famine, plague, natural disasters, and significant failures in warfare.
Besides sacrificial and worship rites to pray for blessing, emperors and nobles sometimes would stay frugal and cut off entertainment activities to show their grief and condolences.
Meanwhile, the government would implement a series of policies to help people go through difficult times, including providing free food, free burial budgets, low-interest loans, recruiting poor people for national construction jobs, lowering taxes, loosening strict laws, canceling corvee, lowering the standards or cancel expansive celebration activities, and encourage marriage to guarantee population.
How Did Ancient Chinese Perceive the Death?
The beliefs about death and funeral have been quite diverse in ancient Chinese history.
Confucianism believes that one's virtue and accomplishment are more important than lifespan. Still, a ritual funeral is crucial to show the deceased's achievement, social status, respect, and memories from devoted families and friends.
Buddhism and Taoism Religion believe in spirits and reincarnation.
However, in ancient history, respect, fear of death, and strong beliefs in spirits and the afterlife have been the most common ideologies of most Chinese people.
Therefore, death was considered as important as birth.
This is the reason for ancient Chinese culture's rich burial and complicated funeral.
General Rituals of A Traditional Chinese Funeral.
To Prepare for One's Departure
When a person is dying, close relatives would come and listen to their last words. In some regions, the dying person should be moved to a temporary bed in a specific location.
After the person passed away, close relatives would shower and change for them. Some places must also cover a white or yellow silk fabric on the dead's face.
During this period, no tears could be dropped on the body, and no leather clothes should be worn on the dead; it is believed that wearing a leather shroud could make the person turn into an animal in the next life.
Then, some ceremonies to attract spirits back to the body would be held, and the means differ based on region.
Informing Funeral Message and The Wake
Relatives of the deceased should inform other relatives and close friends about the sad news and burial date, either in person or with letters.
They also have to decorate the house for the coming wake and funeral, wear mourning clothes, and shouldn't come inside other people's homes.
The burial date and position are usually chosen through divination based on the deceased's birth date, social status, and Feng Shui culture.
This is also the wake period.
Usually, the condolence ceremony would be held on the 7th date of one's death.
In the past, the body of the deceased needed to, companied by family, stay at home or the funeral home for seven days before the burial. Now the home-staying period is much shorter in most Chinese families.
Inside the coffin, the dead's head would be towards the indoors and the feet towards the outdoor direction.
Other relatives and friends could come for condolence during this stay with gifts or money.
Condolence Ceremony for Xu Xianqing's Father, on "Xu Xianqing Huanji Tu" Painted by By Artists Yu Ren and Wu Yue in 1588 — Palace Museum
Enshrine and Burial Ceremony
Then, burial ceremonies would be held after being enshrined in the prepared coffin.
Accompanied by family, the coffin would be sent to the burial place.
Funeral procession differs according to history, geography, and financial status. Usually, it includes paper money, some lights, musical bands, and paper-made daily necessities (like bridges, houses, servants, etc.), Buddhist monks and Taoist priests, relatives, and friends, among others.
When they arrived at the tomb, there would be some funeral ceremonies before the burial of the coffin and the setting up of the gravestone.
Funeral Use Painted Pottery Building Model of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220) — Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Follow-Up Funeral Ceremonies
In ancient Chinese culture, it is believed that a person would finally realize he's left the world after seven days of death.
Therefore, his close family members would hold the condolence ceremony on the 7th day of his death, and hold mourning rites every other seven days, until 49 days later.
It means the grief ceremony on the 7th, 14th, 21st, 28th, 35th, 42nd, and 49th day after one's departure.
That is an official end of a traditional Chinese funeral.
More Facts about Chinese Funerals
People with prominent families who died over 80 in peace, their lives are considered happy, and their funerals are believed auspicious and can bring people good luck.
For people who died young and from unnatural causes, their funerals would be much simpler and different.
Nowadays, many complicated rites are omitted in modern big cities, while traditional grief ceremonies are still strictly applied in small and relatively remote villages.
Attires and Paper Objects in Chinese Funeral Traditions.
According to traditions, the deceased's relatives should wear white mourning clothes.
In the Five Elements Theory, White Tiger in the West represents autumn and death. Others believe that hemp-made white clothes are the most unadorned style, which shows respect and deep condolence to the deceased.
The color of mourning clothes has been white since the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC); however, styles and wearing periods differ, based on their relationships' closeness, usually from 3 months to 3 years.
During mourning, family members are not supposed to wear bright color clothes or hold celebration activities; however, those restrictions are much less strict nowadays.
Joss Paper and Paper Objects
Besides placing food and flowers to worship the deceased, burning incense and paper objects are essential parts of Chinese funeral customs and memorizing activities.
They are believed to receive those burnt-up things in the other world.
The most common paper object is Joss Paper or Spirit Money, which deceased people can buy things in their world.
In ancient times, paper-made houses, servants, carriages, and other treasures were also quite popular.
Main Female Mourning Clothes Styles the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), By Xiefang Zhuren (Dong Jin).
Rich Burial Culture in Mausoleums of Emperors and Royals.
In ancient China, one's funeral and tomb also followed strict hierarchies. Usually, they would try to ensure the deceased could live as comfortably in the afterlife as they were alive.
Therefore, Royals and nobles usually have grand mausoleums with rich burial objects.
The most mysterious, probably the grandest one, is The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (259 BC — 210 BC), which is believed to have copied the entire capital city the underground, and the spectacular Terracotta Army is only the guarding troop, which was unearthed from one of his many burial pits.
Burial Graves of Civilians.
In different regions, minority customs, and historical periods, many funeral ways have been applied by civilians, including ground burial, cremation, sea burial, tree burial, cliff burial, and sky burial.
Ground burial has been one of the most common ways in ancient history and usually follows social hierarchy regulations and elaborate funerals.
The form and structure of one's grave usually are based on his social status or titles, and the children of the deceased would try their best to provide appropriate funerary wares, as good as possible, including:
The dead's daily necessities;
Silver Belt Hook Unearthed from Tomb of King Liu Fei (168 BC — 128 BC), Carved "Infinite Happiness, Unforgettable Love". — Nanjing Museum
The dead's favorite crafts and jewelry;
Valuable treasures, like gold and painting;
Ritual jade articles;
Specialized burial wares include models of houses and furniture, pottery figurines, and Tang Tri-Color Glazed Ceramics.
Funeral Use Tri-Color Glazed Pottery Figurine of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Tokyo National Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)